Is it peace yet?

Cautious optimism prevails in the Balkans as Milosevic settles for a worse deal than the one he rejected at Rambouillet.

Published June 3, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

As the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic announced capitulation to international demands to withdraw Serbian troops from Kosovo and permit an international peacekeeping force to be deployed there, the prospect of peace washed over the Balkans Thursday, surprising Kosovo Albanian refugees, relief workers, NATO soldiers and Yugoslav citizens who have endured 70 days of bombing.

And after initial skepticism, many people in this terrorized region began to cautiously express hope that this would be the real thing -- a peace that would once and for all start moving Kosovo's 1 million refugees back to their homes, end NATO's bombing of Serbia and help nudge the former Yugoslavia and the region toward desperately desired stability.

But hope for peace was mixed with regret in the Balkans, where many people -- deported Kosovars, bombed Serbs, the thousands of people who have lost loved ones -- do not see a bright future ahead for some time.

"I have mixed feelings," said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst and editor of VIP News, reached by telephone in the Serbian capital of Belgrade Thursday evening. "First of all, it's good to know this may all be over soon. But we are not facing a bright future here in Serbia. Milosevic will stay in power for some time. All I know is the Serb side has capitulated for sure."

Reacting to the Serbiian move, Balkan analysts cautioned that, while the Serbian climb-down looked real, the devil would be in the details.

"It is absolute capitulation. I am the first person to say I am shocked," said Chris Bennett, a Balkans expert and author of "Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse." Milosevic seemed to be settling for an agreement less favorable than the one he rejected in Rambouillet, France, Bennett said: "The Serbs were going to be able to keep 11,000 troops in Kosovo. Now they get none, zero. They basically have got to behave. Still, we have to see the plan implemented."

"We don't know what the Serbs agreed to," warned journalist and Kosovo expert Anna Husarska by phone from New York Thursday. "For instance, how many Serb border guards are going to be allowed back into Kosovo? How many kilometers from the border will they be stationed? What kind of munitions will they be allowed to carry? How often can they rotate? And when they rotate will they be driving tanks through [the Kosovo capital of] Pristina?" she asked.

The fact that so many crucial details are unclear is of concern, agreed
Philip Zelikow, director of the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the
University of Virginia and a former member of the National Security Council during the Bush administration.

"There are hints that at least at some of these things are not yet agreed,"
cautioned Zelikow by phone from Charlottesville Thursday. In particular, he said, it is not clear "what the command structure of the international peacekeeping force for Kosovo [will be], and the makeup of the international force will be."

"Here's what we know," Zelikow added. "We know that everyone has agreed that the Russians will contribute peacekeeping forces to the Kosovo force in this plan. However, there is no obvious agreement on which sectors in Kosovo will be controlled by which countries' troops. The British are pushing for NATO forces to be in every sector in order to avoid a de facto partition. But no one else seems to be talking about that."

The question of which countries' troops are deployed in Kosovo is a key concern for the Kosovo Albanians, who consider the Russians sympathetic to the Serbian forces that have brutally expelled nearly a million Albanians from their homes in Kosovo over the past few weeks. Previously, Milosevic has signaled a willingness to accept lightly armed troops from countries that did not participate in the NATO bombing, but Western countries have demanded that NATO be at the core of any peacekeeping force for Kosovo.

Kosovo Albanians, meanwhile, were hopeful that peace could bring a better future than the horrors they have experienced over the past few months. And some believe the accord is just the beginning of the path to independence for the province.

"Having in mind all the things we have suffered, I think it's positive news," said Blerim Shala, editor of the Kosovo Albanian weekly magazine Zeri. Shala, who was one of the Kosovo Albanian negotiators at Rambouillet, is now publishing his magazine from Macedonia, where he is living as a refugee with his family. "I think that it is really the beginning of a serious process that will lead to statehood for Kosovo."

Aid groups, which have been dealing with a massive refugee crisis on the periphery of Kosovo for the past two months, were happy about the reported deal. But they were also reeling from the news that they might soon be moving refugees back into the province, which is reported to have suffered widespread destruction at the hands of both Serbian forces and NATO bombs.

"Before people can enter back in, it has to be safe," said Scott Heidler, spokesman for the Skopje office of Mercy Corps International, which runs one of the nine refugee camps in Macedonia. "From the refugees' standpoint, they will not go back until all Serb troops are gone. We have to make sure the land mines are gone, that the wells that have been poisoned are purified." Heidler says even before a peace deal seemed close, aid groups had been planning how to help return the refugees to Kosovo; where to position food, shelter and other supplies; and how to reenter a province that has been heavily mined, where so much housing, farmland and infrastructure have been destroyed.

A reporter in Pristina said by satellite telephone Thursday that after news of the possible peace deal had reached them there, Serbian soldiers occupying the home of one Kosovar Albanian family told them they would be back in their own home in "two or three days."

Serbian soldiers, some 40,000 of whom are reported to be in Kosovo, and who under the peace deal will be required to withdraw from Kosovo within seven days, may be some of the happiest to hear of the peace deal. A NATO spokesman said Thursday that NATO bombing had killed 10,000 Serbian soldiers in the past 70 days. The Serbian government has never acknowledged that so many of their soldiers have been killed but increasingly reports are leaking from Serbia of large-scale desertions from the Serbian army, depression among troops and protests by parents of conscript soldiers sent to the province.

A Kosovo Albanian human rights worker living as a refugee in Macedonia, who asked that her name not be used, reacted to the news with optimism.

"I will be back in Kosovo next week," she said, smiling, as she sipped coffee in a cafe in the Macedonian capital at dusk Thursday. And then, still savoring the thought, she got a call on her cell phone from her niece, who was going into labor. The young woman would have her baby boy
in a foreign country, where both would have refugee status, but on the first night it seemed peace might prevail -- the first time that the prospect of returning to Kosovo was more than a distant dream.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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